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“The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill” by John Trumbull

"The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker's Hill, June 17, 1775"by John Trumbull

“The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill” 

“The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17, 1775” by John Trumbull is the title of several oil paintings completed by the artist depicting an early conflict during the American Revolutionary War. The pictures are iconic images of the American Revolution. 

The central focus of the painting is Warren’s body, dressed in white, and a British major, dressed in a scarlet uniform holding a sword in his left hand and over his shoulder.

John Small, the British major, is shown preventing a fellow British soldier from bayoneting Warren. Trumbull wanted to express the poignancy in the conflict of men who knew each other and had earlier served together.

General Warren was an influential Massachusetts physician and politician. He was killed shortly after the storming of Breed’s Hill by British troops.

The foreground is littered with bodies from both sides of the conflict, and the background includes clusters of colonial and British troops carrying their flags.

On the far right of the painting is a colonial officer, Thomas Grosvenor, with a black man holding a musket behind him. The black man was a slave belonging to Grosvenor.

Boston Harbor is visible in the distance. The sky is partially obscured by smoke rising from Charlestown, which had been torched by the British.

Trumbull chose to emphasize the British Major Small’s role, saying that Small, whom he had met in London was: 

“equally distinguished by acts of humanity and kindness to his enemies, as by bravery and fidelity to the cause he served.”

The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17, 1775 

  • Title:                 The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17, 1775 
  • Artist:               John Trumbull
  • Year:                 1786
  • Medium:          Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions:     Height: 50.1 cm (19.7 in); Width: 75.5 cm (29.7 in)
  • Type:                History Painting
  • Museum:         Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

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Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art version

The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker's Hill, June 17, 1775

Painting by John Trumbull of the Battle of Bunker Hill – Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

John Trumbull was in the colonial army camp at Roxbury, Massachusetts, on the day of the Battle of Bunker Hill.

He watched the battle unfold through field glasses and later decided to depict one of its central events. Joseph Warren volunteered to serve under Colonel William Prescott in defense of the fortifications which the colonists had constructed on top of Breed’s Hill.

After the third British attack succeeded because the defenders had run out of ammunition, during the retreat, Warren was struck by a musket or pistol ball and killed.

The painting depicts many people who can be identified, both British soldiers and Colonists.

British Soldiers

  • Major John Small, the British soldier in the center who is stepping over a fallen redcoat soldier to hold back the bayonet of his fellow soldier
  • Major John Pitcairn, falling back dying in his son’s arms
  • General Henry Clinton, a bare white-headed British officer with a raised sword at the center of the painting
  • General William Howe, standing to the left of Clinton with his sword pointing forward.
  • Lord Rawdon, who holds the British color, center-right in the painting

Colonists

  • Joseph Warren, wounded on the ground, dressed in white
  • A black freeman, head visible below the flags on the left side of the painting
  • General Israel Putnam, a colonial officer on the far left of the painting
  • Thomas Knowlton, standing over Warren and holding a musket
  • Lieutenant-Colonel Moses Parker of Chelmsford is depicted sitting wounded to the left of Warren
  • Colonel William Prescott, who ordered his soldiers not to fire until “you see the whites of their eyes.” 

Battle of Bunker Hill

The Battle of Bunker Hill was fought on June 17, 1775, during the Siege of Boston in the early stages of the American Revolutionary War.

The battle is named after Bunker Hill in Charlestown, Massachusetts, which was peripherally involved in the battle. The majority of combat took place on the adjacent hill, which later became known as Breed’s Hill.

On June 13, 1775, the leaders of the colonial forces besieging Boston learned that the British were planning to send troops out from the city to fortify the unoccupied hills surrounding the city, which would give them control of Boston Harbor.

In response, 1,200 colonial troops occupied Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill. In response, the British mounted an attack against them.

Two assaults on the colonial positions were repulsed with significant British casualties. The third attack succeeded after the defenders ran out of ammunition. The colonists retreated, leaving the British in control of the Peninsula.

The battle was a Pyrrhic victory for the British, as it proved to be a sobering experience for them, involving many more casualties than the Americans had incurred.

The battle had demonstrated that inexperienced militia was able to stand up to regular army troops in battle. Subsequently, the battle discouraged the British from any further frontal attacks against well-defended front lines.

American casualties were comparatively much fewer, although their losses included General Joseph Warren.

The battle led the British to adopt more cautious planning and engagements, which helped rather than hindered the American forces.

Their new approach to battle was giving the Americans a more significant opportunity to retreat if defeat was imminent.

The costly engagement also convinced the British of the need to hire substantial numbers of Hessian auxiliaries to bolster their strength in the face of the new and formidable Continental Army.

“The Whites of Their Eyes”

The famous order “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes” was popularized in stories about the battle of Bunker Hill.

It is uncertain as to who said it, since various histories, attribute it to several commanders, and it may have been said first by one, and repeated by the others.

It was clear that the colonial military leadership were regularly reminding their troops to hold their fire until the moment when it would have the greatest effect, especially in the Battle of Bunker Hill, where ammunition was limited.

The idea dates originally to the general-king Gustavus Adolphus (1594–1632), who gave standing orders to his musketeers: “never to give fire, till they could see their own image in the pupil of their enemy’s eye.”

Adolphus’s military teachings were admired and imitated and caused this saying to be often repeated by many military leaders.

The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17, 1775 

  • Title:                 The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17, 1775 
  • Artist:               John Trumbull
  • Year:                 1834
  • Medium:          Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions:    184.2 x 274.5 cm
  • Type:                History Painting
  • Museum:          Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

John Trumbull

John Trumbull was an American artist during the period of the American Revolutionary War and was notable for his historical paintings.

His painting “Declaration of Independence” was used on the commemorative bicentennial two-dollar bill.

Trumbull also incorporated the likeness of his portraits into his depiction of the signing of the “Declaration of Independence.” It is on display in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.

 John Trumbull

Battle of Bunker Hill

John Trumbull and Historical Fiction: The Battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17, 1775

 

A Tour of History Paintings

Battle of Bunker Hill (The American Revolution)

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“Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes.”
– William Prescott, at the Battle of Bunker Hill

~~~


Photo Credit: 1) John Trumbull [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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